Southern Cultures 11.3 (2005) 101-103
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Soon after the Civil War—and long before the current interest in "historical memory"—Americans understood that the way they remembered the Civil War would define their nation. For nearly a century and a half, commemoration of the Civil War has served as a sort of national Rorschach test, exposing divisions of region, race, and gender that no amount of nationalist rhetoric could camouflage. The "memory" of the war has attracted the attention of gifted commentators ranging from Edmund Wilson to Robert Penn Warren. More recently, Gaines Foster and David Blight have contributed essential works that clarify the shifting interpretations of the war during the half-century after Appomattox. Now The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture, a collection of essays edited by Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, offers a summation of current wisdom about the contested memory of the Civil War from its close to its centennial. Consisting of revised papers that were delivered at a Henry E. Huntington Library conference, the collection addresses literary manifestations of memory (such as autobiography, biography, textbooks, children's fiction), collective commemoration (such as Memorial Day, statuary, Civil War Centennial), and political invocations of the war's meaning (in both campaign rhetoric and protest politics). It is no criticism to observe that the essays are suggestive rather than definitive; a multi-volume tome will be required to compile a full accounting of the orchestrated remembrance of the Civil War. Even so, as Stuart McConnell observes in his concise and cogent Epilogue, the collection demonstrates that gifted scholars who study "historical memory" can weave together interpretative strands, such as military and cultural history, that too often have been divorced from one another by scholarly fashion. [End Page 101]
Scholars have long recognized that postwar northern Republicans waved the "bloody shirt" to impugn the Democrats for their treachery before and during the war, and white southern Democrats responded in kind, aligning their party with the cult of the "Lost Cause." But the complexities of party politics during the late nineteenth century challenged simple appeals to sectional memory. As two especially interesting essays in the collection reveal, activists in the presidential campaigns of 1872 and 1896 had to remold the war's memory to serve their times. Matt Gallman explains that when Anna Dickinson, a gifted women's rights advocate and Republican orator, threw her support behind Horace Greeley's campaign to unseat President Ulysses S. Grant, she had to confront both Grant's status as a hero and the war's larger meaning. She shifted attention away from Grant's war record to his disappointing first term as President while also putting the best possible face on Greeley's promised reconciliation with the South. What makes Gallman's essay so interesting is that we see here the complex circumstances that led a sincere supporter of abolition and the war against southern treason to reinterpret the war's legacy so as to condone policies that she almost certainly would have denounced only years earlier.
Northern Republicans faced a different challenge in 1896, when old sectional divisions threatened to splinter national politics. Worried that William Jennings Bryan's campaign was uniting the South and West against the Republican Northeast, Republican bosses deployed everything at their disposal, including the memory of the Civil War, to regain the White House. But, as Patrick Kelly explains, Republicans were loath to simply wave the "bloody shirt." Instead they labored to depict their agrarian opponents as sectionalists who would revive the divisions of 1860, which the Republican Party purportedly sought to allay. Here, again, the rhetoric of sectionalism was employed, but, paradoxically, in order to mute class and regional cleavages. Kelly does not exaggerate his claims; the Republicans won decisively in 1896 for some of the same reasons the Union won in 1865: more resources and better organization. But...